Archive Page 2


My Numbers Experience

The New Yorker had a great article, titled Numbers Guy. The author, Jim Holt, wrote about the brain research into how humans experience and work with numbers. There are alot of interesting data here, including how it seems that there are two parts to the brain, one doing rough approximation, and a separate part doing precise ordering and calculation. Stanislas Dehaene, a neuroscientist in Paris, was working with a subject who had sustained a brain hemorrhage that left him with an enormous lesion in the rear half of his brain’s left hemisphere:

Dehaene….showed him the numerals 7 and 8. Mr. N was able to answer quickly that 8 was the larger number—far more quickly than if he had had to identify them by counting up to the right quantities. He could also judge whether various numbers were bigger or smaller than 55, slipping up only when they were very close to 55. Dehaene dubbed Mr. N “the Approximate Man.” The Approximate Man lived in a world where a year comprised “about 350 days” and an hour “about fifty minutes,” where there were five seasons, and where a dozen eggs amounted to “six or ten.” Dehaene asked him to add 2 and 2 several times and received answers ranging from three to five. But, he noted, “he never offers a result as absurd as 9.”

Somehow, the damaged part of the subject’s brain had taken away his ability to do precise number handling, but the rough approximation function is in some other part of the brain and it’s left intact.

To me, the most interesting observations about the article has to do with bilingualism, as I’m bilingual (more precisely semi-bi-lingual since my Chinese has regressed so much, which would make me more of a “lingual”). In particular:

  • To this day when I have to multiply in my head, I recite the Chinese multiplication table because that’s how I learned it. This is different from addition, which I do without having to think in terms of linguistic languages. Dehaene’s research confirms my own observation, in that multiplication, unlike addition, is “unnatural practice” because our brains are wired exactly wrong for it, whereas there’s evidence that addiction activity is evident even in babies who haven’t acquired language skills. Since there is no neurological circuitry for multiplication, all of us has to memorize the multiplication table verbally, as a string of words.
  • Similar to multiplication, but to a lesser degree, I tend to remember long series of numbers in Chinese, specifically in Cantonese. I thought it was the same phenomenon as the multiplication table, because I learned to count in Chinese. But Dehaene noted that linguistically Chinese number words are just more brief, and take less than a quarter of a second to say compared to a third of a second for English. This resulted in the average Chinese speaker has a memory span of nine digits vs seven for English speakers. And apparently, the Cantonese dialet is even more efficient in that Hong Kong people can juggle ten digits with no problem. Who knew I have been enjoying a cultural advantage all along!
  • My three year old is learning to count, but she frequently counts “…13, 14, 16, 17…” I had concluded that “fifteen” doesn’t follow the “-teen” rule, in that it doesn’t sound like “four-teen” or “six-teen” and was causing her problem. Turns out that my hunch is correct. Dehane has noted that we use special words for numbers from 11 to 19, and for decades 20-90, and thus it’s more challenging to learn to count in English. (French is even worse, working in base of 20, so 98 is “four twenty ten nine.” That explains so much about the French :-)) Not only that, Chinese is great for counting, because it’s modular, in that all the digits are based on ten. So 54 is “five-ten-four” and 291 is “two-hundred-nine-ten-one”. And the sound for “hundred” “thousand” “million” and so on are all single syllable, so it’s easy to say as well. Dehaene believes that this is one of the reasons why the Asian students are better at math than Western students.

So maybe I better gear up to teach my kids math in Chinese so they can sustain an advantage in math over her friends :-)


We’ve been TV-free for almost four years now

So ever since we moved back to our house after the rebuild in June 2004, we’ve gone without broadcast or cable TV. Prior to it we were constantly living in front of a TV, watching, dining, sleeping, etc. There were hardly any moments when the TV wasn’t on. Where the TV was, that’s where we really lived. All the other parts of the house were essentially unused. We were that pathetic, and I imagine, not far from the American norm.

So when we had a chance to start fresh, we wanted to just make a break for it. We had originally designed so that there would be no TV in the main living level, and only have TV downstairs. But with all the moving in and settling down, we never got around to calling in the cable guy, or setup the satellite. The Tivo sat in the box with taped shows from 2004. Our big Sony CRT tv sits in a neglected corner hooked up only to the DVD Player and VHS.

The kids (mostly Isabelle, since Camille was only a few months old at the time) watched videos on the computer upstairs, either on a DVD or ripped/downloaded video files. My wife and I just stopped wasting time on Food network (whose shows were getting boring anyway) and any Must See TV. Yes, it was weird for a while, but eventually the cold turkey became the norm and we haven’t looked back (much) since.

I found much more time reading web stuff, blogs, etc. I started reading more books, spending more time playing games with the kids. I’ve stopped wasting time on shows that I don’t really like, but were watching simply because it was on. I think I’ve gained back at least 3-4 hours of productivity time back.

Today, we watch movies on DVD or streamed onto our Apple TV on a projector, a much more intentional event than just the background TV viewing habits of old. We are focused when we are watching something, and not let TV be the condiment to real lives. We do spend an amazing amount of time on the web, and increasingly watch streamed stuff via youtube, hulu, or bit torrent stuff. But all-in-all, it encouraged more play or reading times for the kids and adults alike, and I’m glad we left it all behind.


My new project

I’ve been very busy getting a new project off the ground. It’s, and while we have nothing to show for the moment, I’ve been working busily in the back to get our business plan together, meeting with advisors and investors alike, and just getting alot of very valuable feedback from friends. We have also started a blog for it, and you may find more post activities over there for the time being.

This is my second attempt at a startup since leaving the Big Software Company in Redmond, and the learning is starting to show, I’m glad to say.


riaa/mpaa should go talk to monsanto

reading michael polan’s excellent “omnivore’s dillemma” and found this quote fascinating:

“it’s difficult to control the means of production when the product you’re selling can reproduce itself endlessly.”

what he’s talking about is that when two varieties of a crop are crossed to produce an improved hybrid, it’s hard to profit from the hybrid “discovery”, as once you sell a few of these improved hybrid plants, the buyer can collect the seeds by these plants themselves to start next year’s crop. there’s no easy way to monopoly or control over the hybrid design. except, it seems, for one species in the common food corp. for this particular species, the offsprings of two of the hybrid plants produces seeds that are nothing like its parents, making the offspring useless to the farmer. so every year the farmer is forced to go back and buy more seeds. that’s how monsanto makes millions by selling its special hybrid variety seed, which grows into plants that can withstand the weed killer roundup.

it seems that nature is much better at developing rights management than anything that microsoft, apple, real networks, riaa, and mpaa can together conjured up. maybe they should pay a visit to monstanto, or better yet, go directly to the species known as “zea mays”, or what is commonly called corn. for it holds nature’s answer to copy protection.


Sun buys the M in LAMP

Sun Microsystem just bought MySQL AB, the company that services MySQL. Reading it this morning sent chills down my spine: is this the end of MySQL?

Though two positive thoughts help settle me down: 1. MySQL is under GPL license, which means that if Sun does anything too funny, the open source devs will fork it and Sun is left without the support of the community, probably devalues the whole thing. 2. Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of Sun, seems to get it as he was quoted as saying:

CTO’s at startups and web companies disallow the usage of products that aren’t free and open source. They need and want access to source code to enable optimization and rapid problem resolution (although they’re happy to pay for support if they see value). Alternatively, more traditional CIO’s disallow the usage of products that aren’t backed by commercial support relationships – they’re more comfortable relying on vendors like Sun to manage global, mission critical infrastructure.

So maybe this isn’t so bad afterall.


When others can say it much better than I can

A long time Apple employee leaves and talks about why. This ex-Microsoftie felt very similar sentiments when I made the big jump last year, even though the two companies in many ways couldn’t be more different.


Wow, talk about handy work

Before there was the transistor, vacuum tubes were the high technology of electronics. I’ve never played with one myself, but one of these days may try to build something simple with it. Their warm glow like an incandescent bulb is very appealing in a nostalgic way.

While tubes and transistors are very different beasts in electronic circuits, you can think of their served function as roughly equivalent in scale, i.e. you’ll need one transistor to do the job of one vacuum tube.   Now with a Core 2 Duo CPU of today, you are getting about 300 Million transistors. So to do the same thing in tubes, you’ll need 300 million vacuum tubes. With a tube is about the size of a swollen thumb, and you can imagine the size of the beast that will take to perform what Intel put into the space of a 140mm x 140mm. Now to mention the amount of wiring needed, electricity used, light and heat generated and the infrastructure it would have taken to support such a montrosity.

Now go one step further, and see the video below on the steps needed to make ONE vacuum tube, and multiple it 300M times, and you may just blow your mind:

via hackaday